A hundred years ago, Malaysia’s founding father Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj enrolled at Penang Free School (PFS). By then, the 13-year-old prince from Kedah had been to various schools but he was more interested in playing than studying. But his mother Makche Menjelara’s decision to send him to PFS in 1916 proved to be the turning point in Tunku’s youth.
Tunku became an awesome striker on the football team, a badminton division captain and a junior officer in the Army Cadet Corps. He went from being scout patrol leader to section leader. He did so well academically that he eventually received a government scholarship to study at the St Catherine College, Cambridge University.
Before PFS, Tunku was “incorrigibly playful” and was not particularly fond of going to school. According to a biography of the Tunku, published when he received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership in 1960, his mother gave up trying to keep him in the palace by the time he was five years old. He frequently skipped classes and escaped his royal confines to play with the village boys.
“My father was a prince. He told us he rode an elephant to go to his first school,” reminisced his son Suleiman Tunku Abdul Rahman.
He said it was in accordance with an old court tradition that dictated that the feet of royalty should never be dirtied. When the elephant proved to be a little over-the-top, his mother settled for putting the Tunku on the shoulders of a retainer who would manfully carry him to school.
According to several historical accounts, the Tunku did not like the preferential treatment accorded to nobility. As the seventh prince of Sultan Abdul Hamid Shah, the 24th Sultan of Kedah, the Tunku’s formal education started when he was about six years old at the only Malay elementary school in Alor Setar.
“He told us about how he often ran away from class. He liked playing with the village boys even though it was a big no-no for royalty. When a small English school was opened by a teacher named Mohamad Iskandar, my grandmother sent the Tunku there instead,” said Suleiman.
When the Tunku’s older brother, Tunku Yusof, saw that he was not making progress in his studies, he took the Tunku with him to Bangkok in 1913, where he was enrolled at Debsurin School.
Alas, two years later, Tunku Yusof succumbed to pneumonia in the jungle while combatting bandits and Tunku was sent home to Kedah. It was then that his mother enrolled him at PFS.
“By the time the Tunku joined PFS, the school was already 100 years old. It was established and steeped in tradition. The school population was a mix of students from different cultures bonded by a strong sense of institutional pride. Every student had an equal opportunity to excel,” said Old Frees alumni Quah Seng Sun, who is fondly regarded by other Old Frees as the school’s unofficial historian.
By “free”, Quah said it meant that PFS was for children of all races. Wanting to grow “a race of intelligent and honest servants”, Rev Robert Sparke Hutchings founded the school and ensured that every child was welcome with no race nor class placed above any other.
“That may sound like the norm in modern day Malaysia, but in 1816 when PFS came to be, it was a bold move in an era when class discrimination and missionary schools dominated the British Empire,” Quah said.
It was just what the Tunku needed. The four years he spent in PFS prepared him for a life in England where he subsequently earned his law degree, formed the Malay Association of Great Britain and eventually returned home and led the country to Merdeka without conflict and bloodshed.
Although PFS had religiously kept its records, documentations of Tunku’s schooldays were lost during World War II.
“The school building suffered from Japanese air raids. Many of the records and archives had also been destroyed to keep them from the military police then. We have so few photos and records of the Tunku’s time in PFS,” lamented Quah.
The war also saw the destruction of PFS’ records of another legendary Old Free Tan Sri Teuku Zakaria Teuku Nyak Puteh (sic), better known as P. Ramlee.
Born on March 22, 1929, P. Ramlee spent his primary school days at Sekolah Melayu Kampung Jawa and Francis Light School. He was enrolled at PFS just as the Japanese Occupation began in 1941.
“The war disrupted education. PFS became the headquarters of the Indian National Liberation Army. It lost all its furniture, books, science apparatus, sports equipment and trophies. But worst of all, we lost almost every record of pre-war Old Frees,” said Quah.
When PFS recommenced after the war, all the classes had pupils of different ages. P. Ramlee entered Standard Five (today’s Form One) at the age of 16.
There is no record of P. Ramlee wooing his schoolmates with his music. He was remembered as a “brilliant goalkeeper” for the school football team.
“But his talents as a musician and singer were obvious even then. Very often, he would hum to himself in class and be reprimanded by his teacher who would tell him to be quiet, not knowing then that a star was born,” recalled his ex-classmate former Foreign Minister Tengku Ahmad Rithaudeen in a 2005 interview.
In 1947, when he was in Standard Seven (Form Three today), the silver screen icon joined a singing competition organised by Penang Radio and won first prize. He became a local sensation and left school to perform in musical bands.
Less than a year later, a film director from Shaw Brothers Studio in Singapore heard P. Ramlee performing. He offered him a job and gave him a train ticket to Singapore. And so P. Ramlee left Penang to embark on an illustrious career, eventually acting or directing in 66 films and composing and singing 401 songs.
The school’s archives from the post-war years have been kept meticulously. There are volumes of school leaving certificate copies dating back to the mid-1940s. In many of them, the reason given for leaving school was “going to work”, just like P. Ramlee’s.
“That is how it was back then. After the war, PFS was a renowned school and its school leaving certificate was a respectable recognition for Old Frees,” said the school’s board of governors chairman Datuk Abdul Rafique Abdul Karim.
PFS is now 200 years old. It holds the history of thousands of students who left and made a name for themselves, including the Raja of Perlis Tuanku Syed Sirajuddin Putra Jamalullail, his father Al Marhum (sic) Tuanku Syed Putra Syed Hassan Jamalullail, ex-Penang Chief Minister Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu, and Dr Wu Lien-Teh, who stopped a pneumonic plague in Manchuria that killed 60,000 people in 1910 and became China’s father of modern medicine. Other noted Old Frees are badminton player Eddie Choong, economists Jomo Kwame Sundaram and Danny Quah, and Think City chairman Prof Datuk Dr Anwar Fazal.
With such a wealth of history, the school’s bicentenary celebration promises to be a robust one. The school had a mega carnival and a heritage bicycle ride and celebrations for its 150-year-old board of prefects and 100-year-old scouting movement earlier this year. A gang of Old Frees is now driving from Penang to Dittisham, England, where the school’s founder was born, and on Oct 21 there will be a grand dinner for more than 5,000 Old Frees, “young Frees” and guests at the school field.
To follow the celebrations, visit pfs200years.com.